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10 amazing uses for biomimicry in business

We can learn a lesson or two from Mother Nature.

2016 has been a long year, with exultant highs and despondent lows for sustainability-minded professionals.

I write this in the dark hours of the longest night of the year, knowing each day grows brighter from here. It’s a time for new beginnings. And although the snow presses dense and cold upon us, we know masses of tiny seeds are ready to awaken.

As an evolutionary biologist and futurist, I take the long view. Species come and species go, ecosystems change and disturbance brings opportunity. Wildfires trigger new growth and reveal fertile soil. Falling trees open the canopy for new light to stream down to the forest floor. Life is resilient, and nature’s ancient R&D labs have sculpted millions of successful strategies for surviving against any odds.

You’ve probably heard of biomimicry — the art and science of observing the living world, distilling strategies that stand the test of time and applying these deep principles to our human challenges.

Bumps on the leading edge of the humpback whale’s flippers minimize turbulence — wind turbine blades that mimic them are 60 percent more efficient. Water beads up and rolls off the lotus leaf, cleaning dust from their surface. Lotus-San paint mimics this self-cleaning surface, saving maintenance costs, labor, energy, with no toxic cleansers. Nature’s 4-billion-year-old R&D lab offers a bottomless treasure-trove of energy efficient, low-toxic and time-tested Innovations.

Nature’s 4-billion-year-old R&D lab offers a bottomless treasure-trove of energy efficient, low-toxic and time-tested Innovations.

Biomimicry has become a widely recognized, comprehensive methodology for innovation in industries as diverse as agriculture, architecture, manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, software, materials and robotics. Arizona State University’s new Biomimicry Center and the Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University set the pace, bringing biologists together with experts in design, sustainability, business and engineering.

All around us, the Age of Information gives way to the Age of Biology as radically disruptive ideas emerge from simple observation of the living world — transformative, surprising, yet somehow obvious. Nature-inspired solutions are everywhere, and we can expect them to explode in the coming year. Here are the major bio-inspired trends as I see them.

1. Biophilia

Biophilia, which translates literally as "love of life," describes our innate emotional need for outdoor spaces, greenery, living things and watery elements. Humans need these things, just as all living creatures do.

Biophilic Design seeks to reconnect us with that nature, right where we live and work. The reason is that natural aesthetics are no longer a luxury.

Consumers are far more likely to enter and explore areas containing greenery or water. Patients recover faster from surgery and require less pain medication when they can see trees out their window. Schools with nature have higher test scores, offices filled with plants and natural light are more productive and communities with green-spaces know more of their neighbors. Workplaces with natural elements save more than $3,000 per employee, making biophilia an economic investment in customer satisfaction, employees’ health, well-being and performance. We can expect to see Biophilia applied everywhere.

2. Living Buildings

Buildings such as Seattle’s Bullitt Center are striving to replace the ecological services the predeveloped landscape once provided. In the past, half of Seattle’s rain would have evaporated, to be recycled into the next rain. Today, only 17 percent of that precipitation is reclaimed by the atmosphere.

Living Buildings (a concept championed by the Institute for the Living Future) seek to restore functions such as this by mimicking the native environment. In pre-Seattle’s temperate rainforest, for instance, layers of pine needles broke up the rain, atomizing it before it reached the forest floor. Living Buildings here use planters on the sides of the buildings and mossy absorbent skins to emulate this function.

In desert areas, Living Buildings might emulate the cooling and water-retention functions of cacti and other drought-tolerant plants. We also see a trend toward Regenerative Cities (PDF) — moving beyond individual buildings toward built ecosystems, where shared resources help realize greater efficiencies. With more extreme weather expected in cities worldwide, Living Buildings and Regenerative Cities can supplement some of the ecological services we’ve been missing.

3. Future of work

All companies and industries have an economic imperative to grow, but everyone — other than madmen and economists — knows you can’t grow indefinitely on a finite planet.

It often feels as if we are just delaying the inevitable — grow, but don’t collapse today.

However, some ancient societies have persisted for hundreds of millions of years, making more with each generation. Ants, termites, social wasps and honeybee colonies are survivors, with proven ways of life that accomplish many of the same kinds of collaborative outcomes we seek. Companies are looking hard at how superorganisms do business. These ancient networked societies don’t rely on a single leader, or a hierarchy of command. Their decisions emerge from the bottom up, in flat and flexible biological networks.

Together, the colony is intelligent, agile, resilient and innovative — everything we’d like our global organizations to be.

We can expect to see more companies looking to these ancient success stories for insight into everything from self-management, collaborative teamwork and distributed leadership, to collective intelligence and swarm creativity. (My book, "Teeming: How Superorganisms Work to Build Infinite Wealth in a Finite World," talks more about this.)

4. Bio-security

All superorganism colonies are plagued by parasites that seek to profit from their hard work by stealing it. Many parasites co-opt their host’s communication systems, mimicking their scent to gain entry, or producing eggs that resemble their favorite seeds or the scent of their larvae. Superorganisms must work constantly to protect their networks from deceptive pheromones designed to manipulate them into serving others.

Similarly, fungal networks underground risk network takeovers from competing patches, and viruses wage a constant arms race on the organisms they depend on for propagation. We can expect to see more companies and governments mimicking these smart, highly responsive systems for network security, testing identity and ensuring truth in media.

5. Machine learning and artificial intelligence

Mycelial fungus networks are even more ancient and successful than the social insects. This half-billion-year-old pulsing nutrient superhighway is highly responsive to change, and may represent a quarter of all terrestrial biomass. Researchers think of them as the planet’s subterranean neural networks, and they have much to teach us about using and protecting our own digital networks, including the Internet of Things. We'll start to see bio-inspired intelligence systems in our everyday life: in energy, heating and driving.

6. Superorganism-inspired algorithms

Companies as diverse as Southwest Airlines, Unilever, FedEx, Hewlett-Packard and Capital One use simple algorithms derived from ant colonies to improve their operations. Southwest was able to cut freight transfer rates 80 percent at their busiest stations, reduce employee workload 20 percent and board planes more efficiently.

Ant-inspired algorithms optimize everything from natural gas pipeline routes, air-conditioning control in operating rooms, supply chain management, assembly line and website design, search engines, digital storage solutions and information routing. Encycle Inc.’s wireless Swarm Logic energy management solution (based on the simple rules of honeybee foraging) cuts electrical costs by 10 percent and reduces peak hour strain on the grid. We will see far more of this, with RFID-tagged objects and GPS interacting with our mobile devices to issue prompts.

7. Material science

Today’s automotive and aerospace engineers seek stronger, lighter, more fuel-efficient alternatives to traditional plastics, while the biomedical industries seek highly targeted biologic drugs and biocompatible materials. The need for self-repairing, lightweight, strong and life-friendly materials is strong across a wide swath of industry, and bio-inspired material features are tantalizing.

Material scientists can’t get enough of nature’s materials — from sea urchin spines to abalone shell and spider silk, these complex hierarchical composites humble and inspire. Labs across the country are seeking to understand and emulate the secrets of their assembly.

8. Biological manufacture

Many of nature’s structures and tissues are too complex, tiny or precise for human-scaled technologies to produce. We are seeing new approaches to manufacture, assembly and design as a result.

Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are our engineered entry point for biological manufacture, although primitive in comparison to growing embryos and self-repairing bone. Manufacturers are looking for renewable sources of AM materials, and studying living models (from paper wasps to spider spinnerets and silkworms, tree resins and abalone repair) for extruding them.

9. Carbon-negative manufacture

3D printers have reached the mainstream, but we have yet to find sustainable, scalable feedstocks for building with them.

Biomimcry provides a powerful framework for thinking about this. Our printers easily can be made to eat recycled plastic waste, but printing with reclaimed atmospheric CO2 emissions (as the plants do) is a game-changing proposition with the power to reverse climate change if we move quickly.

Newlight Technologies captures methane-based carbon from the air and turns it into AirCarbon, a thermoplastic material that performs like petroleum-based plastic. Dell uses AirCarbon as well, and Sprint turns it into iPhone cases. Petrochemical distributor Vinmar International has committed to buying a billion pounds of AirCarbon every year for 20 years. The opportunities here as vast and pressing.

10. Biologists for hire

Although Biomimicry is taking off as a versatile and powerful innovation tool, most R&D labs lack a biologist on staff. Many are hiring outside Biomimicry consultants, but there is a real need for biologists and naturalists who have a broad and intimate knowledge of a wide range of evolutionary processes and lineages, and how form and function relate to the environment, so we can know where to look for specific solutions.

I believe we will see a trend towards more "biologists-in-residence" in R&D labs, more efforts to match biologists to engineering challenges, and greater opportunities for Biomimicry consultants to work with corporate R&D and strategy.

Radically disruptive ideas emerge from simple observation of the living world — transformative, surprising, yet somehow obvious.

We may despair against a rising tide of parts per million, and grow impatient when progress strays from the straightest path. But life isn’t prone to linear trajectories or foregone conclusions. It just moves to the next possibility, the next open door. As a Biomimic, I know tens of millions of those doors are all around us. Biomimcry gives us compelling and hopeful stories for innovation, efficiency and resilience. It presents a platform of hope and a diverse array of concrete solutions to any challenge. All we need to do is look.

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